Our world would be a much different place if bees didn’t exist: bees are responsible for pollinating about one sixth of the flowering plant species worldwide and approximately 400 different agricultural types of plant.
Some sources state that bees have been around for about 40 million years, others claim there are fossilized remains of honey bees dating back 150 million years. The earliest records of humans eating honey (and wax) are believed to date back 10’000 years. Thanks to prehistoric drawings in caves we can make these assumptions.
Before man started to “keep” bees, honeybee colonies lived wild in natural cavities. About a few thousand years ago, beekeeping progressed from robbing wild nests to housing swarms in upturned baskets called skeps. Today skeps are illegal in most parts of the world, bees are easily affected by diseases and generally bees would be killed to extract the honey.
In 1538 the first European honey bees were imported by the Spanish in South America. Only in 1700 it was understood that bees gather nectar from flowers with which honey is made. In 1838 a polish apiculturist, J. Dzierzon, devised the first practical movable-comb beehive, which allowed the manipulation of individual honeycombs without destroying the structure of the hive. In 1851 L.L. Langstroth designed a completely movable frame hive inspired by Dzierzon’s works. He is considered the Father of American beekeeping, he formally recognized “bee- space”, where bees could now build their comb on frames which could be moved and manipulated.
There are about 20’000 different species of bees in the world. Bees live in colonies that contain the queen bee (female), the worker bee (females) and the drone (males). Only the queen bee can reproduce. Worker bees clean the hive, collecting pollen and nectar to feed the colony. The drone’s only job is to mate with the queen, and the queen’s only job is to lay eggs.
Generally only the honey bees produce honey, but minor species do to.
HOW DO BEES PRODUCE HONEY?
As the weather starts to warm up and flowers start to bloom, the bees will begin collecting nectar from flowers within a 4 mile radius. Only the worker bees forage for the hive.
Bees have glands which secrete enzyme. The nectar is taken back to the hive or nest, where sister bees chew on the nectar which creates the honey, and then it is dropped in the honeycomb. Honeycombs are hexagonal shaped cells, which in the wild are made by the bees themselves out of wax.
Once the nectar is stored in the honeycomb, the bees fan their wings to get rid of the water content in the nectar (which is around 71%). The nectar solution becomes more concentrated, capping the cells. This is when the beekeepers know the honey is ready to be harvested.
Bees also communicate with each other indicating the distance and direction of the flowers. This information switch is known as the “waggle dance”. The faster they waggle the closest the food source.
In the winter times, when there are fewer flower blossoms, the bees are not foraging and they survive on the stored honey.
It takes at least 8 bees all their life to make one tsp of honey. Fortunately for us they usually make more than they need, so we can have some too.
WHY ARE BEES SO IMPORTANT?
Most crops grown for their fruits (including vegetables), nuts, seeds, fiber (such as cotton) and hay require pollination by insects. Pollination is the transfer of pollen from the male parts of a flower to the female parts of a flower of the same species, which results in fertilization of plant ovaries and production of seeds. In other words, pollination is needed for plants to reproduce. The main insect pollinators are by far bees.
Bees tend to focus on one kind of flower at a time, which means that the pollen they collect will most likely be transferred to another flower of the same species. This kind is called cross-pollination and is required by many plants. The business of collecting pollen is hard work and that is why so many flowers attract the bees and reward them with the nectar.
The flower will determine the color of the honey and bee pollen.
Bees share the job of pollination with other animals (birds like hummingbirds, bats, moths, butterflies, ants, beetles and other), and also wind and water contribute to pollination process.
WHY ARE BEES DISAPPEARING?
Bees are disappearing in a scary way. People don’t realize the important role bees play in preparing a meal: one out of every three mouthfuls of food in the American diet is, in some way, a product of honeybee pollination (in 2015 in the US 42% of bee colonies collapsed) which means are food production is at risk.
There are multiple factors at play:
- Pesticides: which are designed to kill insects. Some varieties thou are worse for bees than others, specifically neonicotinoids: a class of insecticides chemically related to nicotine, widely used by farmers and consumers since the 1990s. Bees are hard workers, they filter the honey for the babies, they sacrifice themselves so that the brood eats only the purest of honey, but pesticides are way to strong for them to eliminate.
In China the use of pesticides has nearly killed all the bees, so it is common for men to be used as pollinators. (they use dried pollen powder sticks and touch each flower with it).
- Loss of Habitat: as rural areas become urban, green spaces are stripped of all all weeds and flowers.
- Climate Change: unusual warm winters have caused plants to shift their schedules. When bees come out of hibernation, the flowers have already bloomed and died.
- Diseases: pathogens carried by mites weaken bees and their immunity system, making them more susceptible to pesticide poisoning. Especially the parasitic “Varroa Destructor”, arrived from Asia in 1987, is a reddish-brown bug which attacks the colony by sucking the bee’s blood, weakening their immune system and exposing to disease, deforming their wings until they die. An unchecked infestation can wipe out a colony in less than two years.
Once the colony gets infected, they get fumigated, killed and burnt with their honeycombs.
A big issue is the CCD, Colony collapse disorder, which is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of the worker bees disappear and leave behind the queen. It was named this way in 2006 in conjunction with a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of western honey bee colonies in North America (30% loss each year). Also European countries observed similar phenomenon but to a lesser degree.
According to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection department in the United Nations, the worth of global cops with honey bee’s pollination was estimated close to 200 billion dollars in 2005. In the six years leading up to 2013 more than 10 million beehives were lost.
New studies are showing that Africanized honey bees, also known as killer bees, can help solve the CCD issue. Killer bees are a hybrid of western honey bee species; they were first introduced to Brazil in the 1950s as an effort to increase honey production. They later spread in South America and arrived in North America in 1985. Killer bees have had a bad reputation through-out the years: they are more aggressive and react to disturbances ten times faster than European honey bees (in human history there have been about 1000 deaths caused by multiple stings). This been said, Killer bees are not so prone to suffer colony collapse, they make more honey, and are stronger and less susceptible to climate change.
When the bees pollinate, they transport pollen from flowers to flowers, the pollen sticks onto their hairy limbs. They also bring some back to the hives to feed the other bees, or just because it is still on them. To extract bee pollen, beekeepers put a small holed sheet in front of the entrance of the hive. The holes are tight so that when the bees go through, the pollen falls down and gets collected on a tray. The different color depends on the type of flower the pollen comes from.
There are some controversies about how bee pollen gets collected. If the first method is used, it won’t cause any damage to the bees but some beekeepers use a sticky sheet instead to collect the pollen, sometimes injuring the bees by having their limbs caught on the sticky sheet.
WHY DO MANY VEGANS NOT CONSUME BEE PRODUCTS?
Many people consider the production of honey causing bee slavery. Many beekeepers take inhumane steps to ensure personal safety and reach production quotas, especially larger honey producers. Honey bees make a lot of honey during spring and summer, which is mostly to feed themselves during this time and also in the winter season. Yes, they do make extra, but many beekeepers seem to “steal” all of it without leaving some for their storage. They replace the honey with cheap sugar substitutes, usually sugar mixed with water and antibiotics to make sure they don’t get infected by diseases. In colder areas, if the beekeepers consider it too costly to keep the bees alive through the winter, they destroy the hives using gasses. Often the queen bee’s wings are cut off so that she can’t leave the colony.
According to the cook-dupage beekeepers association, humans have been using honey since about 15’000 BC, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that people turned bees into factory-farmed animals.
Another issue is the CCD (colony collapse disorder): some believe that beekeeping is actually key to preserving and protecting colonies, but there is another point of view saying that it may actually be a culprit. Beekeepers move infected combs from diseased colonies to healthy colony, fail to recognize or treat disease, purchase old infected equipment, and keep colonies too close together.
EASY STEPS TO HELP OUT BEES SURVIVE:
- Do not use any pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on plants or in your garden. Plants get contaminated and the product will likely reach the bees and kill them.
- Buy local & raw honey from your local beekeepers. Avoid honey sold in bulk or in the supermarket. Best to buy on farmers market so you can meet your beekeeper and check with him his sustainable practices.
- Plant your garden with native and bee friendly plants. They provide great sources of nectar and pollen.
- Try to avoid planting laws. Lawns are literally desert for insects and for wild plants because they usually never have plants beneficial to bees and are cut too often so plants never get to bloom.
- Avoid weeding your garden. Many plants like dandelion are an excellent source of food for bees. In early spring, those ”weeds” are often the only source of food for beneficial insects, and often good medicine for us too!
- Educate yourself and your children about bees. Bees are not dangerous, they forage on a flower and don’t attack humans, they are smart and we should all learn to respect them.
The health benefits of honey and bee pollen are all well known, for this reason many vegans still consume honey products for health benefits. I think that It’s ok to consume honey if you manage to find a local beekeeper that you trust and that you are able to ask about his/hers activity modes, how the bee pollen is extracted, if the honey is kept raw etc. On the other hand, If you cannot find a supplier like this, than there are many excellent, totally vegan, alternative sweeteners like rice syrup, maple syrup etc. After watching some videos about honey production, I will never buy honey from a large chain again, it is really factory farming, and just not right.
Of course the best solution would be to grow your own beehives, I researched into it and it doesn’t seem too complicated once you get started.
In the last several years more information and attention has been directed to bees and their extinction rates, so I think more people are addressing the issue and the message is starting to get through to some.
In New York, in 2015 a bee sanctuary was founded, and encourages people to grow their knowledge about them, by having a big green gated secured area with many plants and flowers.
A great documentary that explains many of the issues is called “More than Honey” on Netflix.
As Einstein once said: “If the bees ever die out, mankind will follow 4 years later”. Again, our civilization’s success and man’s overruling has affected our planet.